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Given the number of people with diabetes – 26 million in the U.S., with another third estimated to have prediabetes – it’s little wonder that more companies and startups are trying use technology to address the problem.
But a new report on computer-based support for people with diabetes finds that while digital tools can lead to some positive outcomes, the effects appear to be short-lived.
The report, published in the Cochrane Library, an independent evaluator of medical research, was based on a review of 16 trials involving nearly 3,600 people with type 2 diabetes. In each of the trials, the patients used computers or mobile phones as part of a diabetes intervention program that lasted between one and 12 months.
The interventions in the trials included online peer support and education, digitally delivered tailored advice, goal setting features and mobile-based glucose data transmissions.
The study found that the digitally supported programs led to small positive effects on blood sugar levels, with the mobile-based interventions leading to slightly more improvement, but that those effects started decreasing after six months. It also found that there didn’t appear to be significant improvements on depression, blood pressure, weight or quality of life.
“Our review shows that although popular, computer-based diabetes self-management interventions currently have limited evidence supporting their use,” lead researcher Kingshuk Pal, of the London-based University College London said in a statement. “There are also few studies looking at cost-effectiveness or long-term impact on patient health.”
Skeptics of broad studies like this one point out that because they look at a range of products of differing qualities, that can create more middle-of-the-road outcomes. Indeed, some of the more innovative digital diabetes programs, like Omada Health, Ginger.io, and Glooko, have shown some promise — for example, in a recent 230-person pilot of Omada’s diabetes prevention program, the average participant lost 13.7 pounds after 16 weeks.
But as more digital applications emerge to help patients fight and prevent diabetes and other conditions, it’s important to scrutinize their effectiveness. As this study emphasizes, real behavior change is incredibly complex, and the tools that ultimately work will be the ones that help patients figure out how their specific health changes can sustainably fit into the rest of their lives.